‘Mic Dispatch’ episode 17: HIV-positive service members; the death of Tyrone West (full transcript)

 Tawanda Jones and her half-brother Tyrone West, who died in 2013 after an altercation with police

On this episode of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Alex Berg speaks with service members and legal experts about the consequences of the Trump administration’s “deploy or get out” policy. Then, correspondent Aaron Morrison sits down with Tawanda Jones, whose half-brother Tyrone West died in 2013 after an altercation with police. The controversy surrounding West’s death has led to demands for justice from West’s family and Black Lives Matter supporters.

Nick Harrison, sergeant, D.C. Army National Guard: We’re fully capable of doing our job. We’re fully ready to volunteer and go on all these deployments. All we need is the staff officers who are in charge of the HIV policy to just change the policy and get out of our way.

Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: Should more than a thousand members of the military be kicked out for being HIV positive? That’s what a new policy by President Donald Trump would do. Beginning Oct. 1, the military must begin removing [nondeployable] service members. Alex Berg talks to a sergeant who’s fighting back.

Harrison: Sacrifice is something that every service member is called upon to make. You expect that you will one day be called upon to go overseas to serve your country, to put your life on the line. I don’t think HIV-positive service members are any different from anyone else. We’re willing and ready and able to serve our country and to fulfill our calling. And I guess it’s mostly frustrating and confusing that the Department of Defense would prevent us from doing so.

Alex Berg, correspondent: Imagine dedicating two decades of your life to national service only to be told you can’t advance your career — and might not be able to serve at all — because of a health condition that has nearly no effect on your ability to perform your duties. That’s what Nick Harrison says happened to him. After 18 years of service, including two deployments to Afghanistan and Kuwait, Harrison says he was denied a promotion and now may need to leave the military entirely. That’s because of a policy that says service people living with HIV can’t be deployed.

Berg: Hey, you must be Nick!

Harrison: Hey, how’s it going?

Berg: I’m Alex.

Harrison: Nice to meet you.

Berg: It’s so nice to meet you, too. Thank you for having us.

Harrison: Come on in.

Harrison: I don’t think it really makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a lot of the history and the stigma associated with this particular disease. A lot of people still have this mindset of the pictures or stories or the images that they were told in the ’80s and the ’90s.

Berg: Since 1991, the military has automatically classified anyone living with HIV as nondeployable. Deploying can be a faster route to advancing your career. And what’s more, being nondeployable means in you’re ineligible for certain roles. The policy was originally designed to prevent the spread of a deadly epidemic. But today, medical experts say that not only do medicated service people living with HIV pose almost no risk of transmitting the disease, the medication needed would have practically no effect on fitness for duty.

Harrison: The medication is working so well that they can’t even detect the virus in your bloodstream at all anymore. There’s no way that you can transmit it to somebody else. It’s really a treatable disease now. And so the medications that are out there, you take a single pill a day — just, like, a vitamin in the morning.

Berg: You take one pill?

Harrison: Take one pill a day.

Berg: Would you be able to show us?

Harrison: Sure, definitely. This is the pill-a-day regimen. It’s Genvoya.

Berg: So for you, one pill before bed?

Harrison: Yep. One pill before bed. Whenever I was deployed over to Afghanistan, they had a pill-a-day regimen as well, for malaria, which is a pill a day that you’re supposed to take every time. It’s not that big of an issue.

Berg (voiceover): Now, Harrison is suing the Department of Defense because he says he was denied a promotion because of his HIV status. Scott Schoettes is representing Harrison in the lawsuit.

Scott Schoettes, HIV project director and senior counsel, Lambda Legal: The policies that they have with respect to HIV are just way behind in terms of the science and what it really means to live with HIV today, and I just don’t think they’ve wrapped their heads fully around just how easy it is to provide that care. I think a lot of people don’t realize, but a person who is living with HIV and who is on these treatments and gets to a place of viral suppression, that that person is actually incapable of transmitting HIV to another person, even sexually.

Peter Perkowski, legal and policy director, OutServe-SLDN: The “deploy or get out” policy is if you can’t deploy, you’ll be separated, and since you are automatically classified as nondeployable, our fear is that everyone with HIV is going to be separated.

Berg (voiceover): “Deploy or get out” will impact Harrison and 1,120 other service people living with HIV. Altogether, there’s about 133,000 personnel who are considered nondeployable due to a wide range of medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and psychiatric disorders.

Berg: What do you hear from your clients who are people who are living with HIV and also serving in the military?

Perkowski: They’re terrified. They’re either scared or angry or both, and they’re just trying to save their lives and save their careers. A lot of the people we talk to want to put in their 20 years at least so they can retire with a military pension. A lot of them want to stay in for the rest of their lives. Some of them don’t know what they would do without a military career.

Berg (voiceover): The Defense Department does not recognize the term “deploy or get out,” which has been used widely by the media. They told us in a statement, “Despite the effectiveness of current antiretroviral therapy regimens to suppress HIV viral load, the impact of HIV disease progression and potential treatment regimen complications and medication side effects may impact a service member’s readiness. Even well-managed HIV infection carries risks of complications, comorbidities, potential transmissibility and logistical challenges.” The Defense Department does allow service members living with HIV to apply for a waiver to qualify as deployable. But Harrison’s application was denied.

Harrison: There’s no job in the world that a person living with HIV cannot safely perform. Where the challenges remain is on some of the, for instance, first responders, police officers, firefighters and health care workers living with HIV. I think those are the two areas that are kind of the cutting edge, where people perceive that there would be some type of risk if a person living with HIV was performing in one of those jobs. And the fact is is that there isn’t.

Berg (voiceover): Since filing the lawsuit, Harrison’s lawyers have asked the court to stop the government from implementing the “deploy or get out” policy for people living with HIV.

Berg, to camera: On Sept. 14, there’ll be a hearing for the preliminary injunction to stop the “deploy or get out” policy going into effect on Oct. 1. But until then, the lives of service people living with HIV will be hanging in the balance.

Harrison: Medical professionals had said HIV shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor for, like, years now. How long does it take to rewrite the policy? We’re fully capable of doing our job. We’re fully ready to volunteer and go on all these deployments. All we need is we need the staff officers who are in charge of the HIV policy to just change the policy and get out of our way. We want to do our jobs just like everyone else.

Del Toro: What do you think about Trump’s “deploy or get out” policy? Is it discrimination? Leave us your comments. With so many cases of police brutality that go viral, what happens to the victims’ grieving families after the cameras move on? Our correspondent Aaron Morrison talks to a Baltimore woman who lost her brother to a police killing five years ago, and she’s still fighting for justice.

Tawanda Jones: He was somebody father that they executed. He was somebody brother! He was somebody’s son! His life mattered. You took their father. I don’t know what to say to his kids, but I love ’em, and your aunt gon’ keep fighting until I get accountability for what they did to y’all father.

Morrison (voiceover): Every Wednesday, Tawanda Jones goes out to protest the death of her half-brother here in Baltimore. He died five years ago during a scuffle with police. Since his death, Jones has become a staple and a tireless advocate for police accountability.

Jones: My name is Tawanda Jones. My brother, Tyrone West, was brutally murdered in Baltimore City on July the 18 of 2013. The thing that people don’t see — that we have to still pave our way, we have to still work through all this. When those cameras stop rolling, that’s when I start rolling even harder. I’m not here for a camera. I’m here to show people that you can survive after this. You always have to be your loved one’s voice. I am my brother’s keeper.

Morrison: Take me through July 18, 2013.

Jones: We started our day off as we normally did, together. I would call him in the morning and — or he would call me. He was like my wake-up alarm, I was his. At exactly 6:30 in the evening, he got a phone call that changed my life forever. It was a lady in need of a ride, and at that moment he turned and said, “Sis, are you gonna go with me? Can I use your car? She’s stuck.” And I’m like, “Sure, go ahead.” And literally a half an hour later, I knew something bad happened. It was like, I felt like my world was changing. And at that moment, I’m like, “Oh my God, Tyrone.” I just screamed, “Tyrone!” And I went to go call him, and I think I called him over 20 times, and he didn’t answer. I turned and I looked at the news and I seen witnesses sobbing on the news saying how they had video footage, how my brother was beat from one side of the street to the next, how he was pulled out by his dreadlocks, how he was called the N-word on numerous times. “This is what we do to you N-words like this.” It was horrible. And my life just changed forever.

Morrison: West’s case is surrounded by controversy. The police department says West was pulled over for a traffic stop. Officers say West resisted arrest once police suspected he had drugs, and eight officers were needed to restrain him. According to the independent review board that investigated the case, his heart stopped due to dehydration, exertion and physical excitement. The family’s separate forensic review disputes that conclusion. The officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing in December of 2013.

Jones: I’m on my way to work. Then after work, I’ll go grab her again and then I do a weekly demonstration for my brother called West Wednesday, and we protest, and this is week No. 249, so we’ve been out there 249 weeks nonstop, and this — that protest is very important. It’s for police brutality. At the end of the day, you know why mommy’s out there? Because all police officers are not bad — and remember, mommy’s car ran out of gas? When the officers pulled us over, and I’ll never forget, she saw their face, and she’s like, “Mommy, I hope they don’t kill me like they did my uncle,” and I had to explain. And I was like — one of those prayable moments that I’m like, “God, please, whoever this officer is, don’t let them come with guns drawn like they normally do.” It was a great interaction because the officer was like, “You know, I’ma block off the street, make sure everything is good, you’re fine. Do you need help?” type of thing. And I utilized that moment. I thought that that made a difference, but — because I don’t want my children fearing officers. I really don’t want that.

Jones, dropping her daughter Teyonah off at school: Love you.

Teyonah: You too.

Jones: Have a great day.

Teyonah: See you!

Jones: See you, big girl. Does she got her bag? Oh yeah, she got it. OK. All right, now we’re ready to rock and roll.

Jones: I’m a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher, and I love doing what I do. I’ve been blessed to do it here for 12 years. But I knew that I wanted to continue on teaching kids at a point in their lives because, like, they saved my life. And once [West] got took from me, I’ll never forget, I was in the classroom and I’m looking out the window and I remember the little girl said, Kennedy said, “Ms. Tawanda, your brother’s outside.” And I said, “No, baby, my brother’s not out there.” She said, “Yes, he is.” And when I opened up the door, a blue — I lie to you not — a blue butterfly was, like, literally flying. She knew that, symbolically, even though my brother wasn’t here in the physical realm, but he was there. I’m obligated not just to fight for my brother, because these are not isolated incidents, because I know after two days, some families can’t even stand this fight. We have to be the one to keep that light constantly burning.

Jones, at West Wednesday: Mic check!

Protesters: Mic check!

Jones: Our last conversation was about George Zimmerman verdict, about Trayvon Martin being executed and George Zimmerman being found not guilty, or no charge at all. And to know that my brother will be turned a week and a half later — murdered, executed, for the fact that these killers, Chapman and Ruiz, are known, repeat violent offenders, and I’m working actively now to this day to have them fired and arrested. That, to me, is accountability.

Jones: Mic check!

Protesters: Mic check!

Ted Sutton, Baltimore resident: Hey sister.

Sutton, to crowd: Nobody’s son should be treated like this son was treated. If he’s so wrong, let him have his day in court.

Jones: Right. Amen. Amen.

Sutton: When you have the right of judge, jury and executioner, you don’t have the right to have a bad day.

Jones: Amen.

Sutton: What Tawanda is doing is so powerful. But this will continue until we replace elected officials that don’t represent the people — and holding those accountable in office. We have to make sure that we get those carrying badges and guns in jails and not walking and saying they are protecting us by taking our lives.

Jones: But I’ma keep fighting nonstop until killer cops are in cell blocks. So when I say, “What do we want?” I want y’all to say, “Accountability.” Because I don’t want nobody messin’ up talking about no justice. Because it’s just us.

Jones: This is a West Wednesday book someone created for me. I feel compelled to show people how to fight, to show you that we are more than hashtags and body bags. We have to be the one to keep that light constantly burning.

Jones, at West Wednesday: What do we want?

Protesters: Accountability.

Jones: When do we want it?

Protesters: Now.

Jones: What do we want?

Protesters: Accountability.

Jones: When do we want it?

Protesters: Now.

Jones: We won’t stop.

Protesters: We won’t stop.

Jones: We can’t stop.

Protesters: We can’t stop.

Jones: Until killer cops.

Protesters: Until killer cops.

Jones: Are in cell blocks.

Del Toro: And that’s it for another episode of Mic Dispatch. Thanks for watching and see you next time.

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